When my editor called to let me know that the ‘Simbahöllin Cookbook’ (written by Janne Kristensen and Isobel Grad) had won the third place at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2019 for desserts, I immediately regretted not having bought the book while at the Simbahöllin cafe in Þingeyri a month ago.
It’s easy to see why Janne and her husband decided to stay in the cute-as-a-button town. Their love for Iceland runs deep, and the couple leapt at the chance to restore the stately Sigmundarbúð—built in 1915—to its former glory. They opened its doors to the community in the form of cool and casual cafe-restaurant Simbahöllin.
That was back in 2009. Since then, the cafe has grown to include an artist’s residency, a community centre, a local gallery and an overall tourist attraction for the town. Yet another addition to this significant labour of love is the simply titled Simbahöllin Cookbook. The attractive book bears the same mossy shade and timber-panel stripes as the café itself.
I wonder why they wrote a cookbook. “Isobel has been working with us for a while now,” says Janne, “and we were always experimenting in the kitchen. I guess we wanted to write the story of the house, and the coffeehouse. We like working together, so this idea came about naturally.”
It’s also a great souvenir. “We wanted to give people something to remember their time here.” says Isobel. “It’s a practical object, and we’d seen visitors taking the leaflets about the house while they were at the cafe. They wanted something to take home.”
The book is much more than a collection of recipes (although there are plenty of those). The pictures show the surrounding landscape changing from summer green to winter white, and traditions like the annual sheep round up, the swimming pool coffee club, and the local “day of the accordion.”
It’s a heartfelt tribute to the building, the community, and the town. “That’s the reason we included more than just recipes,” says Isobel. “The funny thing,” adds Janne,“is that locals have started to ship the book out to their relatives and friends elsewhere. The book has become a documentation of life in Þingeyri. We didn’t anticipate that.”
The artwork between the recipes gives one cause to pause. They pay homage to the star ingredients of Iceland—berries, lamb, and fresh seafood—and provide ways to bottle the short window of abundance, such as Simbahöllin’s famous rhubarb jam. “It’s such a unique jam recipe,” says Isobel. “When you eat it with the waffles, the flavour shines through.”
Unlike traditional Icelandic recipes where the rhubarb is cooked over a long period and slowed to a treacly darkness, here the recipe calls for the rhubarb to be cooked only until it is softened, preserving the rhubarb’s calming coral colour. The blueberry coffee crumble cake is another recipe that the authors highly recommend.
Currently the book is only on sale at Simbahöllin, and internationally via their website—but the writers hope to make it more widely available in the near future. Simbahöllin cookbook is an honest memento of Icelandic country life. We can think of no better alternative to plastic puffins than an award-winning, homegrown book.
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